Challenge: Eating Spicy Food

If you’ve been to Japan, you may have been asked these questions:

“Can you use chopsticks?!”

“Can you eat raw fish?!”

They’re always asked with a fair amount of incredulity, like there is no way it is even possibly possible that somebody who is not Japanese (or Asian, I suppose) can use chopsticks or eat raw fish.

I can, in fact, use chopsticks. I can also have been extremely young and tan. Holy. Cow.

I don’t get it. I mean, sure, I didn’t grow up using chopsticks to eat, and I still get a little cramp in my hand when I use them for a long time, but I can get by pretty well. I even used to cook with them, just like the Japanese. Whenever I was asked the chopsticks question, I was always kind of like–Uh, literally billions of people use chopsticks every day. So, um, yeah, I can use chopsticks.

The raw fish one is trickier, but I’m not going to spit it out and curse the Japanese for their tradition of uncooked food just because I’m white. You know, sushi and sashimi are very popular around the world. But, again, yeah, I can eat raw fish, especially if I’ve ordered it. And I can enjoy it.

Look! I'm eating raw fish AND using chopsticks! It's a double trifecta! Wait. What?

I’ve touched on this before, but the Thai equivalent of the chopsticks or raw fish question is:

“Can you eat spicy food?!”

Lovely, sweet, amazing Thai people: You are not the only people in the world who can eat spicy food. I thank you for your concern, but I will be fine.

If I had been asked this only once or twice, I might put it off as an anomaly, but it happens all the time. All. The. Time.

A typical conversation might go like this:

Me, in Thai, pointing to something because I don’t know the name of it, but I want to stuff it in my face and eat it: That, please.

Person, in English: Spicy! (If they can’t say this in English, they will find somebody who can tell them how to say it in English.)

Me, in Thai: Okay. I can eat spicy.

Person, in English or Thai at this point: Spicy! Very spicy!

Me, in Thai: Okay. I CAN eat spicy.

Person, in English or Thai, and gesturing that if I eat this food I might have a mouth heart attack and spontaneously combust and die a slow, painful death by chili right in front of them, which would really be a nuisance: VERY spicy!  (p.s. “Death By Chili” would be a good band name OR murder-mystery book title.)

Me, in Thai, starting to lose my patience and gesturing back very emphatically that if I don’t get some food somebody’s going to get cut: OKAY. I CAN EAT SPICY.

Get in my mouth, food!

They give me my food, totally doubting that I will be able to handle the spice. And, I’ll be honest, Thai food is often spicy. Very spicy, even. It’s the truth. But the normal things I order aren’t so spicy that I have a problem with them. My nose runs a little bit and my lips burn for a few minutes, but that’s about it.

When I was in Phitsanulok last week, I went out for lunch every day with a group of Thai people. The first day we went out to lunch, they asked me, “Can you eat spicy food?”

“Yes, I can. No problem!” Smiley face.

“A little spicy?” This is another typical follow-up question.

“No, it’s okay. Thai spicy is okay!” Then I always try to make the same pathetic joke. “I’m strong!”

Everybody laughed at this point, but clearly they didn’t believe me. They ordered regular food, without concern for the spice, but then watched me the entire time for signs of mouth heart attack or spontaneous combustion. Throughout the whole meal, they would point to things and say, genuinely concerned, “Very spicy!”

Yes, those are chilies. Yes, it's very spicy.

I’m proud to say I was fine. Even their very sweet concerns about stomach problems in the morning were unfounded. For the most part, I’ve moved past that.

When I first arrived in Thailand in August, I had to get used to all the hot food. I’m from the Midwest. The spiciest food we have out there is Taco Bell’s Fire Sauce, which is to spicy what Thai “winters” are to real winters.

I had to power through the pain and the mouth burning and the tears (literally) and the stomach (ahem) problems the morning after when I first got here. It took me a week or two of hardcore chili pepper training, but I made it through to the other side victorious.

Yeah, it can be a little warm up in my mouth. And that’s what she said? (Too much? Wait, come back!)

Now I’m afraid I’m a spice junkie. I put chilies or hot sauce on virtually everything I eat, and I have to keep ramping it up to notice anything. If you eat a lot of really spicy food, you get a pretty big rush, apparently from (WARNING: Science stuff coming up) endorphins kicking it to stave off the pain.

Pure delish spiciness.

But I keep thinking (and don’t tell me if you’ve heard this one before, because I already know I’m repeating myself) about what the equivalent to the chopsticks, raw fish, or spicy food question would be in Western countries.

My examples aren’t as satisfying, though, because some of the examples I could think of are really gross and (to me) bizarre food that I wouldn’t eat unless I was starving, and even then I might think two or even three times before I put it in my mouth.

In France, you could ask: “Can you eat stinky cheese?” (I LOVE stinky cheese. The stinkier the better, actually.)

In Germany: “Can you eat sauerkraut?” (Yeah, sometimes.)

In Australia: “Can you eat Vegemite?” (Somehow I’ve managed never to have tried it.)

In England: “Can you eat blood pudding?” (GROSS. NO. WHY IS THIS A THING?)

In Argentina: “Can you eat blood sausage and innards?” (AGAIN, STOP THE INSANITY. True story: I stopped eating meat for several years after I saw somebody eat blood sausage.)

In the United States: “Can you eat ridiculously large portions of really greasy food?” (Uh, remember how I said I grew up in the Midwest? Also, half my family is Ukranian, and as a people we’re not exactly known for health food.)

Final Score:

Eating Spicy Food: 0  Megan: 1

Yeah, Spicy Food, take that! I’ve heard that food in the south of Thailand is crazy hot even for Thailandians, so I’ll be interested to take up that challenge soon. And I’ll be honest, I did have something called jungle curry last week, which made my mouth really angry at me. I lost some major street cred at that point, because I was hurting bad. Still, for the most part, I’m fine (Ed note: She is so old now she has to take heart burn medicine to make it okay).

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22 Comments

Filed under Daily Challenge, Food, Living Abroad, Thailand

22 responses to “Challenge: Eating Spicy Food

  1. After two years in China, I still get the dubious chopstick question. And I’m quite adept with them! However, I’m not only left handed but also don’t hold the sticks at the very top like the Chinese do so they look at me askance and murmur confirmations of what they already knew in their hearts: she can’t use chopsticks.

    For the record, I taught myself to use them about 13 years ago when I was living in England working as a home care worker. Some of the old ladies I lived with took long afternoon naps and i couldn’t leave the house (because, like, with Alzheimers folk you oughtn’t leave them alone, even when napping) and was insanely bored. So I started playing ‘pick up the frozen peas with pens!’ and became quite skilled.

    As for heat, the Mexicans also doubted me but I proved them wrong without a doubt. Habanero salsa? One drop will do ya? I think not! Oh, dear, I just finished the bottle. My bad, sorry. I make regular pasta sauce with a few table spoons of habanero sauce. I like how the walls move afterwards.

    • Ha! Yeah, I hold my chopsticks like I hold a pencil, and I hold a pencil pretty differently than everyone else, too, so I look pretty funny myself.

      I can’t believe how quickly we finished off a bottle of Tabasco here. And habanero sauce–ahhhh, sounds delicious!

  2. Arrrg, I can totally relate. When we went to a Christmas Party last week, I was warned by a Thai man that EVERY SINGLE DISH was “spicy”. It was funny at first, but got a little annoying by the 10th time.

  3. Some Thais seem to take it almost as an insult when foreigners don’t internally combust after eating their spicy food.

  4. carrie

    Me? Not so much with the spicy food thanks to my jackass gastroenteric stuffs. My hat is doffed, miss.

    And unrelated, but this, “Yeah, it can be a little warm up in my mouth. And that’s what she said? (Too much? Wait, come back!)” made David LOL for awhile as he was reading over my shoulder. Hat doffed again, madame blogger.

  5. Yeah, black pudding is pretty gross. There are loads of people I know who don’t eat it, including me.

    You heard of faggots? I’m not being a bigot, look: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faggot_(food)

    They’re from our neck of the woods. I used to have them with peas and mash as a littlun.

  6. I suppose we should be pleased that Thais are concerned for our well-being and health. As opposed to laughing hysterically, MUAHAHAHAHAHAAA and rubbing their hands together ~ I think.

    Many Thais, I am learning, don’t like spicy food so maybe they ask everybody. I suppose it is the equivalent pf asking how do you like your eggs?

    Although one time, it was personal, this young lady threw in more peppers than I have seen in my life (okay slight exaggeration), I ate it because my pride was on the line. Interestingly enough I didn’t shat fire the next day.

  7. wow – looking at your post has made me hungry!
    maybe some spicy food!

  8. Brigid

    Very funny post! My husband and I adore spicy food – the hotter the better.. whether it be Thai, Indian or Mexican, Malay or what ever..
    We have a couple of favorite local places near our house in Ekkamai, where they take our instructions literally – when we say Ped Mak – but cant help watching us with amusement while we eat the incredibly hot food.. we are a bit of a novelty act I think.. as when we have taken Thai friends to eat with us on occasion, they have found it a bit on the hot side!
    Our favorite is a Southern Thai place, where we counted around 40 whole birds eye chillies (I kid you not) in one small dry curry!

    • I’m in the south right now and all my Thai colleagues were incredibly impressed with how much spice I could handle today. I was actually really hurting, but I had to maintain street cred!

      40 chilies in the curry?! Wow, you are awesome!

  9. Bob

    You are lucky. When I was there, half the time I ordered spicy food they made it with little spice so that I would not get burned. One time I ordered a dish I liked, and got something different because they were afraid that it would be too hot for me.

    Bob L

    • Two days ago, I was swearing on my life that I could eat spicy food at a restaurant with my Thai colleagues, and one of them turned to the waiter and said, in Thai, “Just a little spicy.” I was so annoyed. Ugh. So I feel your pain.

  10. au

    Hey, I can see that you are holding your chopsticks the proper way.
    This is a good blog worthy of bookmarking it and I will.
    I like Thai foods and Indian’s curry eats.

  11. Hahaha loved how you owned the Thai people…. Have you tried your hand at some Indian curries? They can get pretty spicy so you might like ’em…
    And eww god at the blood pudding and sausage >.<

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